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Idris Ali: دنقلة : رواية نوبية (Dongola)

Awad Shalali, the Nubian hero of this book, is not a happy man. At the beginning of the book he has just come out of ten years in a prison camp, where he has been brutally treated by the Egyptian authorities and has seen his cousin beaten to death. His crime has been supporting Nubian independence. He makes much of Nubian history, pointing out that they resisted Egyptian attacks for a long time, thanks to highly skilled bowmen but, foolishly, merely tried to resist the Egyptians, instead of following them and killing them, to deter further attacks. Nubia had been a Christian kingdom. However, once they were conquered by the Egyptians, they became Muslim. Their capital had been Dongola, a town which Awad holds up as a perfect place, to which he and other Nubians should aspire to return to. The area where he grew up has been been flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam. One of his many grievances is this flooding, as the villagers moved their village ever higher to escape the flood waters, till eventually they could go no higher. Though there was compensation, it was meagre and they are now left with poor land. Many Nubians have had to leave to make a living, with the men often going and leaving the women behind, to whom they send what money they can. But Awad still holds his dream of Nubia of the past, when it was a powerful nation. He is bitter towards not only the Egyptians of today but those of the past, who robbed and pillaged his land, taking many Nubians away as slaves, as they were strong and hard workers. Indeed, he lists various Egyptians of the past (as well as Sir William Willcocks), who caused harm to his land.

However, he has now been released and returns home. It is not a happy place. It was a forgotten land,which the world had erased from its map, to serve as a reservoir for its water. No king, no sultan, no pasha had ever visited here. There is a feast to welcome him back but all is not positive. He is summoned to the police station and warned about his behaviour. Perhaps foolishly, he repeats his political views instead of giving his name and is only allowed to go because of a sympathetic officer. The locals are not to happy with him, either, as they fear his reputation might cause them harm and they urge him to settle down and marry and behave. Only one young man, Demerdash, defends him, saying that he is standing up for the Nubians. When Demerdash mentions that Nubia was Christian, he is condemned by the others, who say that Nubians have always been Muslim.

However, it is clear that the authorities are going to arrest him and perhaps kill him so, with Demerdash’s help, and the help of others, he plans an escape. It is not an easy journey and Ali describes the difficulties but eventually he flees to Sudan. Meanwhile, his poor mother, Hushia, is left behind. Her husband, Awad’s father, had left her and gone to Cairo. There he had lived with Ruhia, who had stolen his money and then poisoned him. This, of course, has turned Awad even more against the Egyptians. Hushia waits and waits to hear news of her son. She is growing old and going blind and is helped by Halima, a local girl. Eventually, after nine years, he arrives, and arrives by plane. We learn that he has travelled the world. He had planned to get married in England but the woman cheated him out of his money. He finally end up in Greece where a ship owner, sympathetic to Nubia and the Nubians, gives him a job as a steward on a cruise line and he does well. He meets a French woman, Simone, and is considering marrying her. However, when he finally returns home, he is condemned for not choosing a Nubian girl and eventually agrees to marry Halima. He then leaves, saying he must earn money abroad but he will send money to Hushia and Halima. The pair wait and wait for his return. And still they wait.

This is clearly a bitter book about a Nubian who hates Egypt and Egyptians and has an impossible dream of the return of Nubian independence and the restoration of the Nubian lands destroyed by the Aswan dam. As such, it is interesting to see something of the story of Nubia, which most Westerners will be unaware of. The story is a bit sparse, as Awad turns from being a staunch and at times foolish fighter for the independence of his country to a man who seems to have almost forgotten it, without Ali giving us any rhyme or reason for this, except, of course, what we may conjecture, namely fatigue and the temptations of the comfortable life. Despite this it is an interesting book and this and his later novel Poor are apparently the only Nubian novels available in English, it is certainly worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by al-Hayah al-Miṣrīyah al-Āmmah lil-Kitāb
First English publication by University of Arkansas Press in 1998